What Is Afrofuturism? Part 12: The Mask As Technology
“Because the mask is your face, the face is a mask, so I’m thinking of the face as a mask because of the way I see faces is coming from an African vision of the mask which is the thing that we carry around with us, it is our presentation, it’s our front, it’s our face” – Faith Ringgold
What do we think of when we think of science and technology? Living currently in our hi-tech, digital world with computers, the Internet, techies, and laboratory scientists, many of us separate ourselves from science and technology as if they are not part of our everyday lives. Do we think of things like a mask as technology? I want to explore that idea.
A few weeks ago, I began reading Tempestt Hazel’s Black to the Future Series in which she interviews artists and intellectuals about afrofuturism and afrosurrealism. While reading some of the answers of the interviewees, I recognized a subtle framing of and at times distancing from afrofuturism based on electric and digital technology of the 20th and 21st century. Saying phrases like “I’m not a techie” in a sense undermines how much science and technology are embedded in the creation of our lives and that they have existed longer and have a wider reach than we normally think. As the aesthetic movement of afrofuturism gains recognition, we need to break down the boundaries of what we describe as science and technology.
Last year, I attended The Festival of the New Black Imagination and futurist Nat Irvin II, gave a lecture on the importance of futuristic thinking and gave us a history of science and technological advancement, beginning with the Agricultural Revolution, which could also be called biotechnology. He claimed that only now we have reached an age of hybridity where man and machine are coming together. Thinking back on that claim, I have come to disagree. We have always been hybrid creatures or cyborgs as Amber Case discussed in her lecture about prosthetic culture and cyborg anthropology. To say that only now we are is to think in the same linear Western sense in which racists tell cultures that they consider primitive that Western cultures gave these cultures science and technology.
Science and technology is much more than machines and computers. If you look at the definition of both terms, their meaning are more inclusive. Science is the knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws, whereas technology is the science of the application of knowledge to practical purposes or applied science. Machines and computers are tools and instruments, which are all applied knowledge for specific purposes. Referring back to the title of my post, how does that relate to the mask? Since technology is an application of knowledge, or in other words, an extension and expression of one’s abilities and thoughts, then so is a mask, in both its creation and use.
Many of us may think of a mask as only art or an object used in religious ritual, but it is a tool or instrument applying some sort of knowledge as well. Like the mask, technology works as a medium; they let us do things we would not be able to do without them. A mask is an alternate face similar to prosthetic limbs, electronic pacemakers and even musical instruments that extend our bodies’ abilities. Astronaut and scuba divers basically wear mask and costumes that allow them to go where a normal human being would not be able to go. The mask show us that we are cyborgs (cybernetic organisms). We are part natural and part created; we have been since as early as the agricultural revolution. This is the reason I disagreed with Irvin; any tool we have used has been an extension of us.
Rethinking of science and technology can also help us to rethink our views of our bodies and on religion. Think of it in terms of the Lucius Brockway’s line from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “We the machines inside the machine.” Often art, the body and religion are positioned as the opposite or outside of the realm of these things, but I agree with ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt when she said in Games Black Girls Play, that musical instruments and bodies are also forms of technology (57-60). Our physical bodies are manifestations of thoughts, knowledge, memories, experiences. Since we take in information from the world, the mind analyzes it and the body evolves accordingly. The development of our opposable thumbs, which allows us to create all the technology we have, can be considered a technological development.
In terms of religion or cosmology, for those who believe in a god or some sort of divine consciousness, creator or designer, and for those who believe we are spirits having a physical experience, our body then can be considered a tool or medium of a spirit of god. And if god is a creator or designer much like we are, then it is not perfect, but constantly experimenting and re-inventing itself based on its experience. This can connect creationism and evolution together. Also, depicting ourselves as both spirit and body represents another form of the hybridity that I discussed earlier.
As we look at our cultures through the lens of afrofuturism and encourage younger generations to learn more about science and technology, I also encourage that expand on these to explore our cultures’ pasts, presents and futures. Reevaluating our scope of and how we relate to science and technology could benefit us in the long run. They are more than the current advancements that developed in the industrial and post-industrial eras and that are exclusive to dominant cultures, upper classes and capitalists. All types of science and technology, whether it be in the form of a mask or a computer, allows us to fantasize about, explore and experience possibilities as well as understand ourselves and the world around us better.